Translated by Dominic Hinde
This article appeared in the 2011:2 issue.
Daniel Sjölin (b.1977) is one of Sweden’s most critically acclaimed contemporary literary and media personalities. Initially highly regarded as novelist thanks to the experimental and surreal works Oron Bror (Scaredy Cat Brother) and Personliga Pronomen (Personal Pronouns), he has since developed a career as a cultural commentator and presenter of Swedish Television’s flagship literature program Babel. Världens sista roman (The World’s Last Novel) is a surreal satire on the contemporary literary scene and a commentary on Sjölin’s own media personality and the nature of literary celebrity that utilises his gift for language and eye for form to biting effect.
Sjölin has won prizes for both his literary and broadcast work, including Borås Tidnings prestigious debut prize for his first novel and the recent Hans Ingvar Hansson Information Prize for his work on Babel.
Come on then. At least bother to read the introduction. It is an easy read and unbelievably frank. It may well be very-very important too. Packed full of gossip and scandal.
The subject is Dalen’s Hospice, one autumn in the recently dawned century. The place where you die is just as insignificant and impersonal as the one where you fall in love. Birth is different, you’re not alone. Unless the places coincide. Then the solitude is total. I call in on the nurses at the reception, they recognise me now, and one of them asks me to give them a shout if I see ’a tall man with a Zimmer frame looking confused’. It could be the day’s escapee, lost on yet another senile wander.
They’re always called Gösta.
I nod seriously and tramp off into the system of corridors along the painted red line on the floor. Tall men with Zimmer frames are ten a penny here. Deep inside my mum is sitting too, with a catheter on her stomach and an entry band to the kingdom of the dead, the plastic hospital bracelet, soldered to her shaking wrist.
But she is waiting neither for me nor for death, because she does not know where the entry band is going to take her. She usually fingers it childishly like a fancy toy. Neither does she have any idea who I am anymore, except in short moments of what is presumably distressing lucidity. It feels merciful that she has no idea of just how bad a state she is in. Her time at peace is gently approaching. At least that is what I want to convince myself. Perhaps I have blamed Mum too much for what has happened to me. It is entirely possible that my father was encumbered with the same genes which caused me to develop a love affair with the most idiotic thing a person can hold feelings for. The mutual love which Mum and I have is a well ploughed furrow. That’s why I don’t really know why or for whom I am writing this. Presumably it is some kind of self-help.
Oh, to bleed on the newspaper billboards: TV host speaks out about his addiction!
But I am a bit of a failure as a therapist.
‘Reward yourself! You’re worth it! Tomorrow it begins for real! You need your own space, you have to be the man. Stop punishing yourself the whole time. It’s OK to be angry sometimes!’
And so on. Love knows no borders. It always finds a different route, excuses, explanations, so that it can carry on existing. At least love of alcohol does.
So yes, now it takes centre stage. Realism. The truth. In the world’s last novel fiction must die. Fantasy must be cut away and scraped off. After two more laboured books comes hell. After two veiled novels here comes a third which explains the earlier two for those imbecilic critics who haven’t learned to read. Some of them have done well from overrating me whilst others have complained:
‘Piss on someone else’s bonfire’
Okay, I’ll put it like this: My mum is an empty vessel. How many characterisations can you create with an empty vessel? I suffer from alcoholism, how much fun is that to write about? What the hell do you want from me? Here you’ll get the whole bloody thing anyway. All the damned realism you can imagine. Even though I despise it – more the literary tool than the truths. All the bloody situations that have to be kept realistic. And people who talk in a realistic fashion and do everyday things. Like eating bananas. All the fucking characters who eat bananas in realistic books, while contemporary issues happen around them (preferably in the suburbs) and violent crime lurks in the bushes (preferably as a subtext). So lie back and enjoy my private shortcomings. My inability to feel love, to live the part, to care. My bananas.
Empathy impairment is nothing unusual today. Generally speaking we are finding it more difficult to acquaint ourselves with that which we do not recognise. Narratives should be true, or have a clear link to societal problems. Otherwise the degree of abstract separation becomes too much. Books of documentary reportage and historic novels about dead poets and kings assert the author’s right to a career in a nationalised world. But it’s a fake kind of relevance with a hidden motive. All of a literary character’s thoughts are one hundred per cent the author’s own. All figures are the author himself. It is themselves and their own brilliance that the author seeks. Everything else is hypocrisy. Yet still we pretend to be looking outward and inward, when in actual fact we don’t give a shit about what we cannot understand or fail to comprehend with ourselves at the centre. That is why I’m not a hypocrite. I write autobiographically, like everyone else – just without beating about the bush. I’m not pretending to write about anything or anyone else. Neither am I posing with my elitist linguistic proficiency behind a ‘crystalclear, economical prose without a word too many’. No, I am posing in front with all of my bloody elitist alcoholic face. In front of the text, in the middle of the picture. Tuesdays at 8 o’clock on Channel 2. The problem in my case is an inability to focus on people’s faces, to remember names and put my own views to one side. To be human is a never-ending task for me. Just as a dyslexic must always struggle with reading, I get tired out in social situations. I always collapse onto the sofa when I get home – weakened by encounters at the coffee machine, smiling and laughing when I deem it appropriate. What for others is a quiet day at the office is a tour of duty for me.
I watch an enormous amount of TV – basically the only thing of which I am capable. I fall onto the sofa, flick on the TV and get sucked in. I can sit there for days at a time without tiring – media consumes me entirely and I fail to notice the passing of time. It demands my full concentration. I can’t really concentrate on more than one thing at a time, but by God I concentrate.
I guess I became a writer and a TV host because I have difficulty relating to others. To write is to feign empathy, in the same way that to interview someone is to feign interest, and it is through imitation that you get better. My books are purely a beginner’s course. The first was entirely about me – it’s important to see yourself from the outside as a first step. The second was full of caricatures, which were a first tentative effort to write about someone else. In-depth character portrayals remain a distant goal for me.
But I’m a gifted copycat. I can feign love and empathy without necessarily feeling them. The less you feel inside, the more important it becomes that you should be able to use your eyes and body to give the appearance of empathy. Just ask an actor. Or the headlines for that matter: I was ‘a find’ and ‘made for television’. I taught myself to imitate my environment, and as social interaction has always been hard work for me it became my profession. I sit at home and imitate everything I am going to say. If I need to take back something I have bought, for example, I play out the whole conversation several times at home. Hello, I’d like to return this please. Then I go through the worst scenario imaginable. I interview myself, talk to myself, as soon as I have an opinion on whatever the radio is saying. I am full of little phrases that lurk and torment me, grabbing hold of my attention and suddenly there I go rambling off. Hold operation, let go Luke. Got a dollar waiting for a dime here. Setchyaburra downtown, love machine, tweetly tweet, tweetly tweetly tweetly tweet, all my people all night long, rockin’ n’ rollin’ sing this song rocky Ronny. Yes, I’d like to return this please, it doesn’t fit. Desperate people with nothing to despair, fuckin and lickin all night long rockin robin tweet tweetly tweet. Tza-tzack, umbatzack, umba-tzackeeto. Yes, I’d like to return this please. It’s too small. Um-baba up-aba umba umba. There’s a freak with a home in the lippodrome, a downie in the old town. Oops-app sa-dayhay opps-app sa-dayhay do you mind if I Obbola? Desperate people with nothing to declare.
And if I ever whistle along to anything it’s always a bloody ringtone.
I imitate a notion of myself. The person I want to be. Television is all about being ten times more natural than normal with a pre-written script and a mug caked in make-up. To play normal, to pretend to fall over words every now and then, all for the sake of the illusion that what is being said is genuine.
I’m good at making a show of things. I record every episode and re-watch it again and again.
There is the pretence.
There is a snapshot of life. There is an image more human than myself.
I copy the image of myself from the TV. Then I can almost sense that I exist, that I am tricking myself. That I exist. I manage to be a person like any other. I act exactly as I do on TV, only in town. It is a successful ploy. It’s about realising myself, making myself real through fiction. By letting this deceptive form take centre stage.
Because only in the limelight do I know where I am. I live to show off through fancy words and made-up eyes. I am my sweet boyish face. I show my face because it conceals another, one which does not exist. A face, and in that face another, one I want to push away and yet at the same time bring out. Another, which is love. Which harbours silence. Someone, please save me from my face.
Ugh. Realism is not easy for me to get used to. It already feels as though I’ve said too much. I have no real desire to carry on with it any more. I know that there is quite a trend in autobiographical fiction at the moment, but to be perfectly honest I cannot be arsed with avoiding, anticipating or timing any more literary trends. In a nutshell; I can’t give any assurance that this is true or that it has happened. The best thing about TV is that I never need to touch anybody. I don’t even shake hands with the guests, the producer does all that. She’s good at it. She didn’t take long to ascertain the scale of my aversion to contact. A clap on the shoulder after the recording of the first show and I pulled away, even though I had everything to lose on the broadcast. Since then; only the camera. Only the gaze, the lens. No touching.
The gaze becomes even more intense.
The viewers just see my eyes and make-up. The garnish of a boy. They don’t see my childhood files at the doctors. About isolation. About my unwillingness to understand other children’s feelings. The incapacity for abstract thought. The concrete speech and the total introverted selfobsession, yet simultaneously great skills of manipulation. A propensity for lying and feigning with the aim of self-glorification or the achievement of some other important aim.
When such a child comes of age, the tests stop. At 18 a child is no longer underdeveloped. It is a psychopath. In my happier moments I call myself a media strategist, and by media I mean the whole of reality. When they kick me off TV I think I’ll become a politician. All that is missing is a suitable party.
The first symptoms of Alzheimer’s usually reveal themselves relatively early. At least if there are relatives around, a group in which I might be included even though there are sometimes months between our meetings. If the sufferer is a smoker, as my mum was when she could still remember to smoke, the people around them suddenly begin to find fag ends in odd places. I found them in flowerpots and in the washbasin, and sometimes just thrown down on the floor. Black scorch-marks spread themselves out on the parquet flooring, like spots on a leopard. And the animal came from within. Strange objects in the fridge, gone-off milk here, there and everywhere; increasingly filthy clothes. Increasingly apparent decline. It shows physically too. I can’t really describe it – it is sort of an irregularity of movement which sets in, a kind of restlessness, as if the body is moving itself without the brain being directly involved. It is a bit like a tiny baby – the only humans never to smile. It takes them a few weeks to begin intermittently to discover the flattering movement at one corner of their mouth, it being so successful that they soon begin to smile at everything. With that they have stepped wholly into the servile mess called life. I read that several of our most common movements, such as grasping a cup of coffee and lifting it towards our mouth, are set in motion without the brain being properly informed. The nerve signals have only reached the spinal cord by the time the hand has begun to move toward the cup. And people talk of human will! With Mum it is as if several of these little movements have time to get going before the brain ‘discovers’ what is going on. Then it’s as if the brain, while not exactly countering the motion, is at least startled, and the jerkiness manifests itself in all the minutiae of the movement, precision points. On the motoring show Trafikmagasinet they once tested reflectors (presumably they do such tests every year, but as I have never been able to afford a car my interest has waned through the years). They fastened the tiny reflectors to a person in three different places: on one side of the waist, the shoulder on the opposite side and the wrists. Then they sent her off into the darkness. From a distance and in weak light it was impossible to see the contours of her body as she walked, only the shining reflectors.
Even so, the human eye is so well trained in understanding context and movement that it was impossible to see it as anything other than a walking human being. They then did the same thing with a deer – with only three points in the darkness you could see that it was animal and not human. It is movement itself, the reciprocal swinging of the small points, which reveals us as human. And it is the interpreter, or the reader if you will, who decides if it is human or not.
With someone with dementia it is like there is a bug in the movement program. It is not entirely obvious that it is a person coming toward you. It could be someone who wants to be human but isn’t getting the chance. The disease manifests itself in the muscles in a mysterious way. It is as if Mum had somebody else inside her, someone shakier. More clunky. Someone who wants to dance. Dance, although she has forgotten what it is, that is to say what it means to dance. Still she jerkily lunges with her arms, still she postures. Often sitting down. As if ‘dancing’ meant ‘being pretty’.
What is dementia? Is it cans of hairspray in the fridge? Is it outrageous invoices from random dodgy companies who manipulatively send collectable commemorative coins? In Mum’s case it is a whole wealth of peculiarities which have sneaked themselves into her behaviour. The clearest signs were the cracks and cut-offs which began to reveal themselves in conversation. She answered nonsensically and I would think that she had misheard, but something wasn’t right. Even so I was oblivious, even to the temperamental moods that began to affect her. Increasingly often she would reproach me for things I had done or failed to do long ago. Like a Christmas dinner I didn’t give a shit about ten years ago. In the middle of July I called by and was greeted by a wailing, crying hysteric. She was beside herself about my missing the Christmas dinner. She said that I’d bloody well have to come on Boxing Day. It must have been a nightmare for her when I pointed out of the window at a garden bathed in summer sunshine and said God Mum that was ten years ago. She went quiet and began to swear even more. I don’t know if she was drunk or merely playing drunk. For her in any case it was just like yesterday, she said, and went on with her interpretation of it, as if to prove of course that she hadn’t made a complete fool of herself. But maybe it was also panic which made her so unbalanced; maybe by then she already privately knew what was underway.
The greatest frustration came when her words started to vanish and were replaced by different words, which to the observer were more like filled pauses.
Mum’s life has been a living hell from what I understand. Aptly her favourite words, her filled pauses, became ‘bloody hell’. ‘Here we are, I’ve made you some … bloody hell … bloody hell … didn’t you stop taking sugar? That damned bloody idiot.’ The last thing was actually about the TV host Kjell Lonna, she has always considered him to be handsome but at the same time she is ashamed of it because he is in the free church and therefore a member of the right-wing bourgeoisie.